Shot to Hell

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Many of these symptoms could have other causes, so the government and many doctors are reluctant to link them directly to the vaccine, Nass and others say. Also, congressional testimony shows, many troops are afraid to report their symptoms, fearing they will lose job opportunities or be forced to take a medical retirement with a fraction of their pay and benefits.

And according to Nass and others, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, used by the Defense Department to monitor bad reactions, doesn't accurately reflect the numbers of problems caused by the vaccines. Reporting is voluntary, so not all adverse reactions are reported. Many doctors or medical workers are unwilling to say a symptom has been caused by a shot.

And many of the chronic reactions that are being reported fail to meet the criteria for serious reactions -- more than 24 hours off work or hospitalization. (Even Robert Ramirez, the suffering Tucson airman who did file a report, says his case won't show up in those serious categories. "I come to work every day. When my [medical] appointments come up, I go to them. And what would they hospitalize me for?")

The federal numbers that are being reported are posted on the Internet and updated regularly. The most recent chart showed that of 620 reports filed, there were 70 cases in which the shot "certainly or probably" caused a recipient to stay off work for more than 24 hours and only six cases in which the vaccine resulted in hospitalization. And all of those six cases, according to the report, involved allergic, inflammation reactions at the injection site.

Defense officials say these are not alarming results. They say all vaccines can have side effects. But they say the anthrax serum only rarely causes serious problems.

Mild local reactions, which include redness and warmth at the shot site, affect about 30 percent of those vaccinated, the government says. Moderate local reactions, more serious redness and itching, can affect 1 percent to 5 percent of people getting the shots. And larger local reactions, like a swollen arm, occur in about 1 percent of the cases.

Systemic reactions, including things like fatigue, joint and muscle pain and flulike symptoms, can occur in up to 35 percent of the cases. The military says serious reactions requiring hospitalization can occur once in every 50,000 doses and severe allergic reactions might occur once in every 100,000 doses.

Jane Orient, the Tucson physician, disagrees with the government's contention that the vaccine is safe and necessary.

"We may be endangering our troops by giving it," she says.

Her organization, Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, represents about 1,500 doctors across the country who are interested in protecting the American public from domestic emergencies, including biological attacks. In a statement to a congressional subcommittee, the group questioned the wisdom and safety of the program and suggested efforts be made toward better protection measures. In a telephone interview, Orient says such methods would include better detection and warning systems and further research into antibiotics to immediately treat anthrax exposure and decontaminant foam. Orient says the program should be stopped while questions are addressed, or made voluntary.

Meryl Nass suggests the government also work on developing anthrax antidotes as well as better arms control. She also suggests the program be halted.

Two bills in Congress propose both those things. A House bill sponsored by U.S. Representative Walter Jones (R-N.C.) would make the program voluntary until the FDA approves a new vaccine or a new, reduced course of inoculation. Another sponsored by U.S. Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) would suspend the vaccinations until the National Institutes of Health can study the issue.

No members of the Arizona Congressional delegation are signed on as co-sponsors to either bill.

Representatives of most members of Arizona's Congressional delegation could not be reached for comment about either the vaccination program or the proposed House resolutions. A spokesperson for Republican Senator Jon Kyl says he supports the program. Representative Ed Pastor, the only Democrat in Congress from Arizona, hasn't taken a stand on the issue, according to his spokesperson.

Senator John McCain -- who often cites his military background in his presidential campaign -- did not return phone calls seeking comment on the anthrax issue.

Opponents of the program -- including some military personnel, many concerned mothers and relatives who have found each other on the Internet (www.dallasnw.quik.com/cyberella/index.htm) -- are trying to drum up support for legislation that stops the program. They don't believe the general public is really aware of the vaccination plans. They wonder why it hasn't come up in the presidential race, noting that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military has received much more press, yet affects only a small percentage of those in the service.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin